There are many interesting areas to stop, look at, walk through and enjoy throughout Barcelona. One of the emblematic areas is a neighborhood called El Raval.
Enjoyed by locals and visitors alike, El Raval, which is derived from the Arabic word Rabad, is defined as a neighborhood or a district. Once home to a cluster of convents and hospitals, El Raval is currently one of the four distinct and uniquely different districts of Ciutat Vella (Barcelona’s old town) and has become a multicultural mosaic of people from all over the world.
The largest of Ciutat Vella’s four districts, El Raval is actually a suburb of Barcelona and, according to many of the local inhabitants – it is the real Barcelona. El Raval actually lies across Las Ramblas, near the Barrio Gótico and stretches all the way over to the Ronda de Sant Pau.
El Raval is divided into two distinct areas. North of the Carrer de l´Hospital it is a somewhat gentrified area which contains MACBA (Barcelona’s Contemporary Art Museum). To the south, in the direction of the port area, visitors can find Barri Chino (Chinatown), an area that probably got its name from Francesco Madrid, a writer who dubbed this area El Chino (or Chinatown) because it reminded him of some streets in San Francisco’s world-famous Chinatown.
According to studies conducted by one of Barcelona’s most prominent newspapers, El Raval is the world’s most ethnically and culturally diverse urban space, a tiny corner of the city off Las Ramblas of little more than one square kilometre … and home to about 40.000 people, most of whom were born outside of Catalonia.
Interestingly, El Raval was hemmed in by city walls until 1859. At that time, the walls were demolished so that the rapidly-growing city could expand.
The area inside the walls was home to open fields and convents until the mid-19th century when construction of textile mills and workers’ houses began throughout its network of narrow, winding streets. As a result of this industrialization and because of its close proximity to the port, El Raval developed into a neighborhood with a high immigrant population and lots of social problems.
El Raval has always been one of Barcelona’s poorest districts and its dark, seedy side has provided it with a reputation of a district that is unsafe and dangerous. Visitors to Barcelona need to know - in advance - that El Raval is where petty crimes occur most often, especially at night.
Though in 1988, Barcelona’s City Council started a huge and expensive urban renewal project that was designed to modernize, clean up and reconstruct the area. Entire apartment blocks have since been torn down to widen narrow, dark streets and make them seem safer. MACBA (the Contemporary Art Museum) and the nearby area, including the enormous Plaça dels Angels (Square of Angels) have replaced some of the old, sinister-looking streets. Additionally, since its completion, more gentrification has taken place and there are now new bars, restaurants, art galleries and bohemian shops in and around the surrounding streets.
El Raval’s major historic buildings include the Gothic Antic Hospital de la Santa Creu which currently houses the Catalan National Library and one of Gaudi’s earliest works – the astonishing Palau Guell, a palace which was commissioned by Gaudi’s patron Eusebi Guell. Palau Guell is situated in Nou de La Rambla street and was built between 1886 and 1890. It’s a somewhat anonymous looking building in the front, unless you look up and see the multi-colored chimneys on its roof (18 in total) all of which are covered with trendicas (a special technique that uses broken pieces of pottery).
One of the “must-see” highlights in El Raval is a Cat sculpture by Columbian sculptor Fernando Botero. The Cat arrived in Barcelona in 1987 and has been relocated twice. It currently can be seen in Rambla del Raval street which is actually one of the areas opened by the City Council. The street, which has many trees, reminds many people of Las Ramblas which is a tree lined boulevard with open terraces. However, Las Ramblas is considered far more popular and picturesque because Rambla de Raval street has a high density of immigrants many of whom are from Pakistan. In fact, the street has been nicknamed Rambla de Pakistan.
El Raval is a good area for shoppers. Its little streets are populated with many privately-owned tiny boutiques, where you can find clothes and accessories generally not available anywhere else. Visitors to the area can also buy fresh produce at the La Boqueria market (also located in El Raval), which is Barcelona’s best-known market, famous for a broad range of food products.
Importantly, because El Raval is centrally-located in the heart of the city, it is easy to go from there - on foot -to other parts of Barcelona to see other major sights and historic districts, such as Barrio Gotico and El Born.
How to get there:
By metro: red Line 1, green Line 3 - Plaça Catalunya stop, green Line 3 – Liceu stop.
By bus: 24, 120
Some useful tips:
If you go to El Raval at night, be sure to keep your personal belongings close to you and watch out, petty crime can be a problem.
The main sights to see.
MACBA (Contemporary Art Museum)
Gothic Antic Hospital de la Santa Creu (Gothic Hospital of St. Crusifiction)
Palau Guell (Guell´s Palace by Antonio Gaudi)
La Boqueria market
El Raval is interesting – and a little dangerous – for locals and visitors alike. There is much to see and do here … as long as you remain cautious and careful.